NFL wary of workout warriors

OWINGS MILLS - Workout warrior. In scouting circles of the National Football League, this phrase can denote both a positive and a negative connotation. The game, after all, is football. It's not the Olympics.

So, scouts, coaches and executives constantly remind themselves and their peers to not confuse pure athletic ability with what can be measured by stopwatches and computers. To not forget about the importance of actual production, skill and the immeasurable qualities of heart and character.

Superb conditioning can obviously enhance speed and physiques. It can't hide an inability to tackle, read defensive schemes or adjust to a poorly-thrown pass.

With such noted busts in the first round who had excelled in workouts as former Philadelphia Eagles defensive end Mike Mamula or Green Bay Packers offensive tackle Tony Mandarich, teams are understandably concerned. They don't want to be the next franchise to fall for a player who looks like Tarzan, but plays like Jane.

That's why intelligent teams don't overemphasize the measuring stick of the 40-yard dash in compiling their draft boards. They don't ignore that type of information, either, in assembling their draft boards.

 "I think the 40-yard dash is emphasized, because it's actually a number that you can write down and attach to someone's name," Baltimore Ravens director of player personnel Phil Savage said. "I think it's overrated. If a guy goes out and runs 4.9 and you expect him to run 4.5, certainly, he's going to drop some in the process and vice versa.

"For the most part, we've done a great job of evaluating what the player can do on the field."

In the case of Georgia outside linebacker Boss Bailey, the younger brother of Washington Redskins cornerback Champ Bailey boasts a chiseled build at 6-foot-3, 233 pounds. He also covers 40 yards in 4.38 seconds and has a 48-inch vertical leap.

Those qualities are comparable to an NBA player, or a decathlete. However, Bailey is unlikely to be leaping into the backfield any time soon, though his jumping might aid him in pass coverage.

Some teams worry that Bailey is too reliant upon his athleticism, that he isn't physical enough in taking on blocks as, say, a hard-nosed middle linebacker like E.J. Henderson, the Maryland Terrapins' Butkus Award winner.

"I don't care what his flat-out 40 speed is," said an understandably biased Maryland defensive coordinator Gary Blackney of Henderson, who has been clocked between 4.68 and 4.82 seconds. "He has great football speed, which is more important. I've seen guys who run a 4.5 on the track and, in a football situation, they run a 4.7.

"I think you still have to go back to the game tape and look at productivity. That's what E.J. is all about."

Arizona State defensive end Terrell Suggs has turned in disappointing times in two campus workouts where he ran between 4.88 and 4.95 seconds.

However, Suggs is uncannily quick over shorter distances and has proven pass rushing ability. He set an NCAA record with 24 sacks last season for the Sun Devils.

The Arizona Cardinals are still expected to draft the 257-pound Suggs with the sixth overall selection while other clubs may downgrade him.

The debate between raw talent against playing ability has been waged for decades.

 For years, teams evaluate players based upon how they performed in stadiums wearing helmets and pads. Often, some perspective is lost in the transition from a football environment to what is recorded in tracks and weight rooms.

Scouts have compared the months of workouts each spring to a beauty pageant, where prospects are analyzed for flaws.

"The combine, the Senior Bow, the interviews, all of those things are just part of the equation," Savage said.

The potential benefit of all the scrutiny can be the discovery of small-college prospects like West Texas A&M outside linebacker Chaun Thompson, who stood out in the obscurity of the Lone Star Conference. His 4.53 speed has encouraged teams to watch more of his game tapes.

Many ultra-productive NFL standouts such as the Miami Dolphins' stocky Pro Bowl middle linebacker Zach Thomas don't pass the so-called eye-ball test, but shine when it's time to chase down a running back in the open field.

Plus, agents enroll their clients in specialized workout programs immediately after their college eligibility expires to train specifically for testing that includes: sprinting, short shuttles, how many times a prospect can bench press 225 pounds, body-fat percentage exams and agility drills.

"Some players are workout warriors," said Tony Softli, the Carolina Panthers' director of college scouting. "We will assess that information, but we always go back to how they look on film. That is how we get an indication of the speed at which they play, not just their physical speed and stopwatch time."

Nowadays, it's rare to see a team commit a major mistake based solely on how a player performs in workouts. Yet, it still happens.

One cautionary tale from long ago is the Dallas Cowboys' second-round selection of Mississippi Valley State receiver Dave McDaniels in 1968. The Cowboys were unaware that McDaniel's speed was based on his being timed accidentally over a distance of 38 yards, not the standard 40 yards.

McDaniels never caught a pass in the NFL and lasted only one season. Mamula and Mandarich ultimately retired, too, never living up to their flashy workouts.

"So much of scouting is feel," said former Chicago Bears personnel boss Bill Tobin in "The Meat Market," a book published in 1992 about the scouting process. "It's humans grading humans. Granted there are going to be mistakes, but there are so many other factors that a computer can't interpret or evaluate.

"That's why the scouts have to have their own built-in memory bank. They have to be able to compare, to bring up insights from the past, whether it's about a player he saw two years ago or, say Joe Namath or Lawrence Taylor."

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